As increasing numbers of IT projects request funding, information technology chiefs are turning to initiatives such as common-use passenger processing systems to do more with less
The successes, disappointments and challenges engrossing airport information technology chiefs have a familiar ring. Like their airline counterparts, they are heavily engaged in business transformation. Doing more with less as IT becomes increasingly critical to streamlining services and enabling more revenue streams is pretty much a given.
At the same time, using self-service and mobile technologies to enhance the passenger experience and support business partners continues unabated.
Beyond these preoccupations, there is a palpable sense that working collaboratively will drive future improvements across a broad spectrum of airport activities. Collaborative decision making tools will be part of this picture. But emerging and existing technologies are also being deployed to move towards share experiences and get stakeholders involved in service improvements.
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In fact, using existing technology in a more exciting and creative way is part of the success story for airport chief information officers over the year. At London's Gatwick
Airport, chief information officer Stuart Birrell is separating the recently independent company
from BAA's IT systems and setting up a new department. Not having to consider the impact of Gatwick's actions on another six airports is a significant benefit.
An early win has been to provide Norwegian, Emirates and Delta Air Lines with 50in (127cm) plasma displays in their check-in areas, allowing them to screen PR campaigns as well as passenger information. The initiative uses standard technology that has been at the airport for a couple of years, but the impact has been significant.
"The feedback has been incredibly positive. And they all want this, so the challenge is how quickly we can roll this out and how ready some airlines are to embrace the technique," says Birrell. "The whole atmosphere is very different; the general feel in the check-in area is completely different to the older areas."
Separation from BAA involves halving 140 inherited legacy systems and integrating them into one system, and this process will continue until next June. "We have a clear strategy of where we could and should do transformation work and where we should do cloning of systems to survive," says Birrell. But he admits it has been frustrating when the business wants to move faster with projects such as the big screens while he is contending with an inherited legacy world, separation issues and building up his IT department. It has meant some projects, such as the back-end SAP implementation, have been deliberately delayed. "We were nine months into the sale before we kicked it off. The decision was taken in the early days of the acquisition. IT was a shared service run out of Heathrow, as was finance, so we had to take some time to build up the business capability locally before we got into the SAP implementation," says Birrell.
Malaysia Airports Holdings has also experienced a mixture of success and challenges as it streamlines IT in its business. This year the focus has been on processes for maintenance, development and remedial activities. General manager IT development Mohd Aminuddin Yaakub says the streamlining project is a "paradigm shift". He adds: "Dealing with mindset is a challenge and change management is another challenge."
Making IT more credible and agile is enabling timely project delivery and the ability to take on more demands for innovation, such as a business intelligence application to support commercial retail activities. This allows data mining to understand customers and product positions and improve product strategy.
However, like many IT bosses, Yaakub confesses resources are stretched: "Resources are an ongoing issue, especially the technical team. The growing demands of the business for innovation and automation require skills and manpower commitment. With the daily 'keeping the light on' activities and ad hoc maintenance changes, the drive for innovation is hampered significantly."
By far the most overwhelming challenges for airports in the past year were lack of funding and staffing shortages, according to the 2010 Airport IT Trends Survey - the annual benchmarking survey produced by Airline Business, Airports Council International and SITA. This is despite a stable sample across the 2010 and 2009 surveys reporting their IT&T budgets increased to 3.4% of revenue in 2009 (see chart, page 81). Furthermore, among all airports responding to this year's survey, 46% say spending increased this year and 30% say it has remained unchanged, with a similar outlook predicted for 2011.
Join SITA vice-president Catherine Mayer and Mumbai Airport's director of operations Bryan Thompson for a special webcast which discusses some of the key highlights and emerging trends in airport IT strategies captured by the 2010 survey. View the webcast here
In some respects, airport IT departments are victims of their own success. SITA's vice president Catherine Mayer observes that lack of budget has been the top challenge in previous surveys and appears to be a recurring issue rather than a consequence of the global economic downturn. "IT is becoming even more embedded in all facets of the airport and so there are more and more IT projects requesting funding," she says.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International chief information officer Lance Lyttle also wrestled with budget and workforce reductions while meeting the same or increased service expectations this year. But he enhanced his delivery to passengers and business partners by deploying an enterprising combination of technologies to drive down costs while meeting the service requirement. Atlanta now hosts all its car rental companies at one central off-airport complex equipped with common-use self-service kiosks, CCTV, a mobile phone distributed antenna system and voice over IP telephony.
Atlanta reflects the experience of the airport community. Not only are self-service and common-use projects the top two successes quoted by airports responding to the Airport IT Trends Survey, but VoIP and IP telephony is the top IT trend, with 81% of airports dedicating resources over the next three years.
Streamlining services at the car rental complex has boosted passenger satisfaction and ensured more efficient flow of passengers through the airport. Lyttle adds that other bonuses are: "Reduced operating costs for the car rental companies, since they no longer have to provide shuttle services for their customers. Reduced carbon emissions and traffic congestion at the airport, since rental car shuttle buses are no longer required."
He predicts that common-use passenger processing systems will be one of the technologies having the most impact on the future airport environment. Lyttle's vision is to reduce support costs by allowing the use of one application by airlines in both the proprietary and common-use environments. He acknowledges that collaboration between airlines, airports and vendors will be the challenge, but the opportunity will be the development of a common system platform. And the pay-off for Atlanta? "It will enable integration with airport systems such as flight information display systems and dynamic signage."
Abu Dhabi Airports Company's vision is to turn all its airports into high-tech centres for passenger processing. Abu Dhabi International is set to become the first major hub in the Middle East to upgrade its common-use terminal equipment check-in platforms to IATA's CUPPS standard. "We want to be an early adopter as it will mean more efficient processes for passengers and lower operating costs for airlines," explains ADAC vice-president of information and communications systems, Michael Ibbitson.
He is more excited by the opportunities offered by mobile computing platforms, looking forward to implementing mobile phone-based boarding cards over the coming months. Ibbitson predicts smart phones will "drive a new mode of interaction between airports and travellers and between airlines, aircraft and the airport".
The high density of wireless connections required to provide network access to all vehicles, staff, aircraft and passengers is no simple hurdle. But Ibbitson is convinced by the commercial advantages of improved staff efficiency and enabling passenger access to airport services. "The chance to drive revenue through direct contract with travellers while improving customer service is one our airport shouldn't miss."
Mayer agrees mobile devices are an opportunity to build direct relationships with passengers. "While this is initially aimed at improving the communication between the airport and passenger, it can be further nurtured into revenue-generating relationships, or at least increase the loyalty of a passenger to any particular airport by differentiation."
Airports recognise the importance of mobiles to their own operations - the majority are devoting IT&T resources to offering mobile-based services and data-capable device-based services to staff. Singapore's Changi Airport has gone one step further and is deploying mobile technology to foster collaborative working among service providers. SWIFT - Service Workforce Instant Feedback Transformation - is this year's key achievement for chief information officer Steve Lee, as it provides Changi and the respective airport agencies with real-time data on service deficiencies and collects instant feedback from customers. It is currently focused on washroom maintenance and customer service issues within Terminal 3, but will progressively cover other aspects of airport operations such as engineering maintenance and estate management.
Under the system's "e-Inspection" component, smart phones are used by staff to monitor maintenance activities and initiate corrective action by service contractors. Frontline staff are also motivated by passenger satisfaction ratings which are gathered via the Instant Feedback System of interactive touch-screen devices at key airport contact points such as check-in, immigration, information and retail outlets.
"You are talking about an order of magnitude in terms of the feedback we are getting," says Lee. "With this device we have more than 50 times the additional feedback. More importantly, we are getting the feedback with the details and timelines that would be useful for all our stakeholders."
Changi is now embarking on a trial to motivate staff in its full-service restaurants, with patrons at two Terminal 3 outlets using the system to rate the service and dining experience. The monthly accumulation of positive votes under the "Valuing Our Tenants Excellent Service" scheme translates into a monetary incentive for the restaurant service team.
Lee sees SWIFT as the forerunner of greater collaboration at the airport, with the next 12 months focused on an airport operations centre, which will involve collaboration of airport parties on a whole range of issues, including traditional CDM, improving operational performance and service levels, reducing costs and "coming up with new capabilities that would not have been possible in the past".
Any technology that allows collaboration will be important in shaping the future airport environment, according to Lee. "It's about coming up with the platform technology that most allows multiple parties to collaborate, to quickly put together a solution that solves problems for more than two of the parties at the same time and to gain the trust of users to work on larger collaborations."
Other airport IT bosses share Lee's view of the importance of collaboration. At Malaysia Airports, Yaakub sees the Aviation Information Data Exchange standard for exchanging flight data as an enabler for greater co-operation. "The use of AIDX will not only serve the passenger-facing activities, but it will provide the inter-airport interfaces for the onward development of CDM."
Cloud technology may also ease the path to sharing information. One of Gatwick's airlines is exploiting Microsoft's Azure Service and Birrell can see this evolving, with the airport also working in that collaborative environment. "The big issue across all airports and the industry is collaboration and when you look at how some of the cloud services are evolving, it's absolutely ripe to enhance that collaboration ability cheaply and easily."
But the greatest enabler of collaborative working may yet be social media, which is second nature for younger generations in the workforce. Birrell points out that most people already have better collaborative software at home than they do at work.
"The social impact of a new generation of consumers coming through the workplace has to be a major positive opportunity," he says. "The attitude of a new generation of people coming through the employment route towards sharing information and collaboration is inherent at the social level and it's coming through at the business level."
airport IT trends survey 2010
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IT TRENDS WEBCAST
Join SITA vice-president Catherine Mayer and Mumbai Airport's director of operations Bryan Thompson for a special webcast which discusses some of the key highlights and emerging trends in airport IT strategies captured by the 2010 survey. View the webcast at: flightglobal.com/ITzone
Compare airport IT strategies with airlines by reading the 2010 Airline IT Trends Survey: flightglobal.com/ITzone
See how airports' approach to IT strategies compares with the airlines by reading the 2010 Airline IT Trends Survey